Sometimes Old Technology Is Appropriate


I’ve actually never bought a brand-new vehicle and my long-suffering wife will attest to the occasional discomfort and inconvenience that has resulted. Nevertheless, we’ve mostly been able to get where we wanted to go, do what we needed to do and do it safely and mostly reliably without ever having a car payment.

Among the long list of secondhand vehicles in our past is a 1984 Toyota BJ60 Landcruiser (diesel) that carried us faithfully through a particularly perilous period in our lives with the same grace and determination that it took for our family to power out of that difficult time.

I had it restored a couple of years ago, essentially out of gratitude, and discovered that time moves on. I haven’t put more than 500 miles on it since because I have newer vehicles now that are more comfortable and convenient. The Cruiser is noisy, slow and rides like it’s always going over railroad tracks. It’s worth a lot of money in its restored condition so why don’t I sell it?

There’s no really good reason but I can rationalize keeping it by knowing that if I put a couple of batteries in it, the Cruiser would take me to hell and back regardless of the circumstances. There is no tougher, more capable or reliable 4×4 on the planet, period.

In that previous dark time I drove it for a month without a functioning alternator because it doesn’t have an ignition system, computers or electric accessories. It doesn’t need an alternator to run. I just made sure I was home before dark, didn’t listen to the radio and charged the batteries overnight to provide power for starting it and running the turn signals and brake lights the next day.

Simplicity can be a virtue, if you’re willing to negotiate on comfort, convenience and efficiency.

So, it makes me wonder if the Air Force has come to the realization that some of its best ideas happened 20, 30 or 50 years ago and that finding ways to exploit them in the modern context is a suitable adjunct to the truly marvelous technology that is flooding the leading edge of military aviation.

It also might be giving Boeing some pause as it layers more software on top of its already complex MAX 8 to deal with what is mainly an aerodynamic issue. The growing sentiment among Boeing diehards is that the company has shifted to an Airbus-like philosophy that lessens the intrinsic role of the human pilots.

As for USAF, the obvious example is the B-52. As we reported earlier, the BUFF will fly until at least 2050 and probably beyond. It seems likely there will be 100-year-old examples in service although the current retirement date would technically see the type out of service at a fresh-faced 88.

The first B-52s were equipped with a tail gunner position. The current B-52Hs are technology hubs with plenty of flexibility for improvement. The new engines that 76 of them will receive will give them better performance, cut maintenance and boost reliability (although anything less than four engine failures is not much of an issue).

At the bargain price of about $3 billion, including weapons and electronics upgrades, the USAF will get a modern fleet of subsonic, lunch bucket bombers that can obliterate life as we know it on Earth. Developing a new platform that could deliver that level of utter destruction would cost at least 100 times more and since the result would be the same, why bother?

There have been a couple of other examples of the aerial forces reaching back in time for modern-day support, notably the Navy’s resurrection of some legacy F/A-18 Hornets from desert storage while it waited for the F-35C.

Then there’s the continuously delayed retirement of the A-10, which can really only do one thing but does it better than anything else and comes in really handy when the circumstances dictate.

None, however, is more intriguing than the continued use of the F-117 Nighthawk.

As we recently reported, the original stealth fighter has allegedly gone back to the front lines in the Middle East and created some fresh mayhem over Syria. That unsubstantiated report is buttressed by well-documented sightings of Nighthawks tooling around the desert ranges of California, often in tandem with F-16s and F-35s.

Although it was officially retired 10 years ago, there are 52 flight-ready F-117s in storage in the desert and apparently four of them may have been dropping bombs in Syria in 2017.

It makes sense, if you think about it. Direct involvement by U.S. F-22s, which replaced the F-117, would be a major provocation in the delicate balance of military power in the region. But there are circumstances in which the off-the-books Nighthawk might be a viable option. After all, it was designed to evade the very Russian-supplied antiaircraft radars and fighters that Syria operates. And since all of the Nighthawk’s once top-secret capabilities have been thoroughly and publicly explored and revealed, losing an airframe in Syria would not be much of an intelligence blow compared to the loss of an F-22 or F-35.

We’ll likely never know officially if the F-117 was or is operational but I have to applaud the abstract thinking that created the plausible scenario of putting a 38-year-old uniquely capable machine back to work.

Makes me want to charge up the batteries and go for a ride in that 36-year-old Cruiser. You never know …